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From Specific Topic to a Research Question: What Do You Want to Learn?

Although students sometimes are assigned general topics, such as the causes of the Civil War or treatments for cancer, the best research writing occurs when students research and write in order to answer a compelling question, one they care about. They want to know why President Lincoln refused to let the South secede or what alternative treatments, if any, really can help cure cancer.

Imagine that you are asked to write a research paper on the environment. If you want to do more than fill up the required of pages with some facts, you will have to take control of this assignment and decide what you want to learn within this very broad topic. Turn on your curiosity and start asking questions by brainstorming, as shown below:

What constitutes "the environment"?
What are some examples of environmental problems?
What laws have been enacted to protect the environment?
Are there environmental problems in cities?
What groups of people are most affected by environmental problems?

The last two questions above could lead you to the more specific topic of who is most affected by urban environmental problems. During your first, exploratory reading, you probably would come across the term: environmental racism, and if you read some recent articles, you also might learn that Hartford, CT is ringed by trash incinerators that have been accused of damaging the urban air quality and contributing to an unusually high rate of asthma among disadvantaged children who live in this city. These ideas and your growing interest could lead you to pose the following research question:

To what degree are disadvantaged people of color, who often live in urban areas, victims of environmental racism, and if such discrimination exists, what should be done?

Note that a research question creates a reason and a direction for research without predicting a particular answer. Your main question should be not be so focused (Why should environmental racism be eliminated?), that it leads to one sided research in which a student tries to prove an initial opinion and avoids every complexity (such as zoning laws, cleanup costs, and other factors of health problems). Rather than gathering enough facts to fill the required number of pages or reach a forgone conclusion, researching to answer a compelling question and writing to assert your informed opinion is much more satisfying.

For more on posing research questions, see Chapter Two of Bruce Ballenger's The Curious Researcher.